Although the organisation was explicitly created for those who reject the supernatural, the NSS does not campaign to eradicate or prohibit religion, arguing that freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion, is a human right and that state sponsorship of selected religions encroaches upon that right. It holds that belief should be a private matter for the home or place of worship and does not belong in the public sphere. In seeking to represent the interests and viewpoints of atheists, the NSS is often critical of what it sees as the damaging effects of religion.
The NSS also campaigns actively in Europe against the undue influence of religion in political, law-making and Human Rights issues.
It receives no funding from the government or outside bodies; its campaigning is wholly supported by membership subscriptions and donations.
The society succeeded in having a law passed that enables older pupils to opt themselves out of religious assemblies at school. Education is one of the NSS’s prime concerns and it continues to campaign against tax payers’ money being spent on faith schools, as well as against the teaching of religion in all schools. It holds that morality, ethics and citizenship should be taught outside of a religious framework and that all religions should be taught about as part of cultural studies. Opposition to the teaching of creationism, or Intelligent design, as an alternative to science forms part of this campaign. It also challenges bias against teachers and support staff who are not of the right religion – or not religious enough – to apply for jobs or to be promoted if they are already in place.
The society also argue that children of families of no-faith and “the wrong faith” are being increasingly discriminated against admission procedures because of the high number of religious schools. Together with city technology colleges (that also have admissions privileges) they would like to see these schools become community schools, although they accept the need for a transition period of two years to achieve this goal. Recent statistics added credence to their claims of discrimination in faith schools based on selection of pupils from wealthier families. Specifically, religious schools take in 10 per cent fewer poor pupils than are representative of the local area. Both representatives from the Church of England and a separate Parent Association denied the existence or evidence of selection to their own schools being based on social background and a spokesperson for the Centre of Ecomonics has indicated that the the bias in social background may stem from those more likely to apply to a religious school, not the selection process. The National Secular society has also expressed particular concern that faith schools of minority faiths such as Islam add further divisions in society.
The NSS was at the forefront of the successful campaigns to abolish the Blasphemy law in the United Kingdom.
Other campaigns involve freedom of expression, women’s rights, gay rights, what they view as religious propaganda being broadcast by the BBC at licence-payers’ expense (such as Thought for the Day), the removal of the 26 unelected bishops from the House of Lords, the demands of religious groups for exemption from discrimination laws and religious leaders trying to prevent the use of condoms (including their use of questionable statements on their effectiveness) to stop the spread of AIDS. The NSS is also tackling the rise of intolerant religion in universities, growing threats to freedom of expression and the cruelty of religious slaughter methods. Attempts to force the Scouts to stop discriminating against non-believers have - so far – proved unsuccessful.
The NSS is frequently invited to submit consultation documents to Government and major UK organisations. For example, it has written about faith-based welfare, doctors’ conscientious objections, the prosecution of racist and religious crimes, a biased census, organ donation and equality issues. It has had high-level meetings with union leaders, government ministers and the equality authority.
It co-sponsored the launch of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and a conference for International Women’s Day – Women’s Rights, the Veil and Islamic and Religious Laws.
As well as its activities in the UK, the NSS has been active in Europe and at the UN, often as a representative for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Most notable have been influential interventions at the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.
At a Council of Europe conference in San Marino its interventions caused the closing communiqué to be changed to require consultation on inter-cultural matters to give much more emphasis to civil society, as opposed to religious bodies. It also made a strong case in Strasbourg for keeping the Council of Europe as a secular body that was not under undue religious influence. Close links have been maintained with the politicians and secretariat.
The NSS started assisting Roy Brown on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and continues on a broader front raising awareness of its problems with a growing list of international bodies. Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood is now working closely with Mrs Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
In the European Parliament (EP), the NSS is involved with the Separation of Religion & Politics Working Group, and attended the launch of the Brussels Declaration. Wood also spoke at a meeting in the EP sponsored by Catholics for Choice on Religion & Politics in the New Europe and made a representation in a debate to the EP President about an invitation to the Pope to address the EP. The Society continues to be consulted by politicians seeking information or proposals. Wood spoke about problems with the United Nations Human Rights Commission at a UDHR 60th Anniversary Conference in Brussels and at the Libre Penseé Conference at the Senate in Paris.
The National Secular Society was founded in 1866 with Charles Bradlaugh as President and Charles Watts as secretary. There were a number of secularist groups around the UK and they joined up to give strength to their campaigns. The word secularism was coined by the British writer George Holyoake in 1846. The NSS’s principles asserted that ‘this is the only life we have, and that we should work for its improvement’.
In 1877 Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were prosecuted for publishing a book containing birth control information, The Fruits of Philosophy by the American doctor, Charles Knowlton. They were convicted, but acquitted on appeal. The issue of contraception divided secularists and a breakaway group, the British Secular Union, was formed: it closed after a few years.
Bradlaugh’s struggle to enter Parliament became a key moment in the development of nineteenth century secularism. He was elected for Northampton in 1880. He believed he had the right to affirm rather than swear on the Bible, but when refused, said he would take the oath. He was told that since he did not believe in the Bible he could not swear on it. For six years he struggled to overcome this problem, by legal and electoral methods. In 1886 a new government allowed him to be sworn in. He later brought about a change giving all MPs the right to affirm. He was a very active MP on behalf of the poor, the Irish and Indian independence.
Bradlaugh, who died in 1891, was succeeded as President by G. W. Foote, who was editor of the Freethinker. He claimed that the heroic age of freethought had passed, but continued as editor and president until 1915. His successor was Chapman Cohen (president from 1915-1949), who was renowned for his lucid explanation of philosophical ideas. In the twentieth century the NSS campaigned against the BBC’s excessive use of religion and for disestablishment and the abolition of religious education. Cohen argued in favour of the League of Nations, but doubted its success, and opposed fascism in the 1930s.
Notable presidents in the second half of the twentieth century were David Tribe and Barbara Smoker, who did much to increase the use of the media to put across secularist views. And in the twenty-first century the NSS thrives as an organisation arguing for the removal of the role of religion in public life (see section on Campaigns).
Previous winners of the Irwin Prize have been:
Nominations for the Secularist of the Year are made by members of the National Secular Society; the winner is chosen by the Officers of the National Secular Society along with Dr Michael Irwin, who has donated the funds which underpin the award.